Racing for Innocence: Whiteness, Gender, and the Backlash Against Affirmative Action

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How is it that recipients of white privilege deny the role they play in reproducing racial inequality? Racing for Innocence addresses this question by examining the backlash against affirmative action in the late 1980s and early 1990s—just as courts, universities, and other institutions began to end affirmative action programs.

This book recounts the stories of elite legal professionals at a large corporation with a federally mandated affirmative action program, as well as the cultural narratives about race, gender, and power in the news media and Hollywood films. Though most white men denied accountability for any racism in the workplace, they recounted ways in which they resisted—whether wittingly or not— incorporating people of color or white women into their workplace lives. Drawing on three different approaches—ethnography, narrative analysis, and fiction—to conceptualize the complexities and ambiguities of race and gender in contemporary America, this book makes an innovative pedagogical tool.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In sum, Racing for Innocence is an important addition to the literature on race, gender, and equal opportunity and expands our knowledge as we contemplate the roots of the backlash against affirmative action."—David Hamilton Golland, Journal of American Ethnic History

"Considered together, the chapters in Racing for Innocence demonstrate how collective and personal narratives of white male supremacy have buttressed each other—remaking racism and sexism as interpersonal rather than collective and institutional problems (and, conveniently, always someone else's problem) . . . Pierce pulls back the curtain to reveal just how tightly, and in how many ways, elite white men have gripped and consolidated power when faced with pressures to make room for others—and the mental and rhetorical gymnastics they have undertaken to convince themselves and others that they came by their status fairly."—Katherine Turk, American Studies

"Jennifer L. Pierce uses a nuanced qualitative lens to offer valuable insights into the workings of whiteness . . . Pierce is a careful analyst who provides astute insights into the workings of whiteness in these elite spaces. These insights and Pierce's clear, lucid writing will be appreciated by both students and specialists alike."—Amy C. Steinbugler, American Journal of Sociology

"Pierce's book is a welcome look at how the concept of 'whiteness' operates among elites. . . Pierce makes a compelling case that the timing of these [1980s and 90s Hollywood] movies was not coincidental, as affirmative action policies were being attacked nationally and, at the same time, there were many stories circulating about white male innocence and injury. . . Recommended."—J. M. Richards, CHOICE

"It is the continued controversy surrounding affirmative action that makes Jennifer Pierce's Racing for Innocence an important book for scholars in this field . . . The greatest strength of Pierce's work is its ability to elucidate the opinions and beliefs of an elite group in American society . . . Overall, this is a very good book that raises questions that are not going away no matter how much white America wants to believe that racism is dead."—Margaret S. Hrezo, Law and Politics Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804778794
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/5/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 632,851
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer L. Pierce is Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is coauthor of Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and in History (2008) and author of Gender Trials: Emotional Lives in Contemporary Law Firms (1995).
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Read an Excerpt

Racing for Innocence

Whiteness, Gender, and the Backlash Against Affirmative Action
By Jennifer L. Pierce


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7879-4

Chapter One

Innocence and Injury

The Politics of Cultural Memory in Print News Media

In the mid-1970s, Allan Bakke, a white applicant, was twice denied admission to the School of Medicine at the University of California, Davis, and subsequently filed a discrimination lawsuit on the basis of race. At the time, the School of Medicine had "set aside" 16 of its 100 slots for racial and ethnic minorities, and Bakke claimed that "less qualified minorities" were admitted over him. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bakke's favor in a sharply divided decision. Five of the nine Justices found that the UC Davis School of Medicine had violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution by denying access to whites "solely because of their race." In the Court's ruling, the quota system was considered unconstitutional, because there was no history of discrimination at UC Davis that required a remedy; the School of Medicine, which was established in 1968, was only ten years old at the time.

The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case was of enormous significance in bringing to national attention a number of terms and legal principles, such as "reverse discrimination," "racial quotas," and "strict scrutiny," which reverberated through other rulings and court decisions in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to its legal import, the Bakke decision also created a "new class of victims" in American culture. While the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs of the 1960s all gave greater public currency to narratives emphasizing the historical legacy of discrimination for people of color and white women, they also placed the onus of responsibility on the federal government for restoring civil rights to victims. In adopting the logic of this narrative by treating white men as victims and calling for relief (the Court ordered that Bakke, age 37, be admitted to the medical school), the Supreme Court case also introduced what I refer to throughout this chapter as "the innocent white male."

Innocence in this social and historical context means innocent of prejudice or racism. The rhetorical use of innocence appears several times in Justice Powell's opinion in reference to Allan Bakke. He writes, for example, "[T]here is a measure of inequity in forcing innocent persons in the respondent's position [Bakke] to bear the burdens of redressing grievances not of their making" (emphasis added). In other words, Powell maintains that it is unfair that Bakke, as a white man, should bear the "burdens" of a remedial policy, such as affirmative action, that aims to correct the legacy of historical discrimination against people of color because he, as an individual, is not complicit in that history. In this interpretation, Bakke is not guilty of racism, he is innocent.

For legal scholar Thomas Ross, the notion of white innocence, which he defines as "the insistence on the ... absence of responsibility of the contemporary white person," has a long history in legal reasoning. Because innocence is also linked to cultural notions of innocence and defilement as well as white and black, he maintains that the theme of white innocence in this legal rhetoric also draws its power from these metaphors. Put another way, "whiteness" evokes innocence and purity; conversely, "blackness" connotes guilt and defilement. Innocence, then, is not only an important element of legal rhetoric, but also a powerful ideological image in American culture. Indeed, stories of innocence have long been part of the mythology about America's heritage. In academic American studies, the theme of innocence is central to early historiography that depicts America as "Edenic," an exceptional nation unspoiled by European class hierarchies and aristocratic excess.

This chapter charts tropes of white male innocence from the late 1980s through the 1990s in the backlash against affirmative action by focusing is on print news media as a form of cultural memory. This form of collective remembering is important for several reasons. First, in bringing the issue to national attention, the press played an important role in shaping the meaning of affirmative action. As scholars have long recognized, the media is a powerful institution in framing how debates about social policy such as affirmative action are likely to be understood by the general public. This is not to say that people uncritically accept whatever they read in newspapers, but rather to underscore the role such sources play in providing stories that help the general public make sense of particular issues and the key players, arguments, and political stakes surrounding them. In doing so, the media "facilitates" people's understanding of affirmative action by supplying the language, such as special terminology, legal terms and concepts, and rhetoric, that revolve around the debate.

As this chapter demonstrates, journalistic conventions and practices helped to frame the trope of white male innocence. In "making news," journalists and their editors are expected to construct attention-grabbing headlines and lead paragraphs in their stories to garner readers' attention—a rhetorical practice that seldom reflects the complexity of positions on affirmative action—thereby guaranteeing profits for their news organizations. In addition, ethically, journalists are expected to write news stories based on the principle of "fair and balanced reporting," meaning that they are required to be objective by presenting two sides to any story.

As my close reading of these accounts shows, narratives of white male innocence in this medium became predominant in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Although other kinds of narratives about people of color and white women existed during this period, their numbers were far fewer. As media scholar Marita Sturken observes, cultural memories about historical events tell us about the political "stakes held by individuals and institutions in attributing meaning to the past." As I argue, the dominance of narratives about white male innocence works to both construct a particular cultural memory about the meaning of affirmative action and race in America, and to suppress stories that counter that it. Specifically, stories about discrimination against people of color and the problems the economy posed for them receive little attention in the news media, while accounts of "reverse discrimination," "angry white males," and "white male victims" took center stage—narratives that helped turn the majority of California voters against affirmative action.

In making this argument, I intervene in the historiography about the political effects of the 1973 economic downturn for white working-class men. As some scholars argue, the pain of the recession turned those men against the Democrats and fueled a backlash against welfare, affirmative action, and other federal forms of assistance. By contrast, my argument is that the news media as well as a number of anti-affirmative-action intellectuals played important roles in constructing and circulating a set of ideas about white male innocence and injury that ultimately supported neoconservative and neoliberal political agendas.

White Male Innocence, american Culture, and Backlash in the '80s and '90s

In 1976, the same year that Allan Bakke's lawsuit was first decided by California's Supreme Court (the case was later appealed at higher levels of the court system), the first Rocky film starring Sylvester Stallone was released across the country. The film, which focuses on the life of a small-time boxer who gets the chance to fight the heavyweight champion, was immensely popular and earned record box office receipts. The movie's director, John Avildsen, received an Oscar for his work; four of the film's actors were also nominated for awards (including Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, and Burt Young); and Stallone, who wrote the screenplay, was also nominated for the Best Screenplay category. Critics praised the movie. When it first came out, Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert wrote:

It's about heroism and realizing your potential, about taking your best shot and sticking by your girl. It sounds not only clichéd but corny—and yet it's not, not a bit, because it really does work on those levels. It involves us emotionally, it makes us commit ourselves: We find, maybe to our surprise after remaining detached during so many movies, that this time we care.

While the storyline of the underdog who through his own skill and ambition is able to work his way to the top resonates with a familiar American narrative about the value of individualism and the rewards of upward mobility, the film also adds a number of twists to this Horatio-Alger-like plot. Unlike the fictional character Horatio Alger, who gets the job and the girl at the end of the story, Rocky makes it to the championship and gets the girl, but he doesn't win the final match. Despite the crushing blows he delivers that literally lift his opponent Apollo Creed off his feet and result in breaking one of his ribs, the ring announcer calls the fight, in what the audience can only see as unfair—a split decision for Creed. The injustice of this decision also has a racial dimension. Rocky is a not only the underdog in the match, but also a white underdog who fights against a black champion, the highly successful and arrogant Apollo Creed, who has the power to insist that his promoters to find a "snow white" opponent. Historian Matthew Frye Jacobson argues that the Bakke decision and Stallone's movie share a particular historical moment as well as a way of "understanding the respective meanings of 'whiteness' and 'blackness' in post-Civil Rights America." In other words, the film suggests, as does the Supreme Court decision, that whites are disadvantaged vis-à-vis black Americans.

While the themes of black advantage, on one hand, and white innocence and injury, on the other, emerge both in the Supreme Court ruling and in the film, this cultural memory did not become dominant until the late 1980s. As sociologist William Gamson found in his study of Americans' talk about politics, in 1969 most media stories framed affirmative action as a remedy for the continuing effects of historical discrimination. In those stories, people of color were depicted as innocent victims deserving of compensation. In the 1980s, with the resurgence of a conservative agenda with Presidents Reagan and the first George Bush and their assault against all federal forms of assistance, the dominant narrative began to shift and was supplanted by a new one calling for the end of affirmative action. Here, cultural memory about victimhood reversed itself: white men became innocent victims, while people of color were painted as advantaged and thus undeserving. In what follows, I outline the elements of each of these narratives, highlighting the neoconservative and neoliberal assumptions that bolster them.

White Male Innocence and Injury: Print news Media accounts

In 1989, a white sociologist, Frederick Lynch, published a book funded by the conservative Institute for Educational Affairs and the Earhart Foundation titled, Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action. Based on interviews with thirty-two white men from around the United States who claimed to be victims of reverse discrimination, either through loss of promotions, job reassignments, or terminations (none complained of discrimination in hiring), Lynch argued that affirmative action hurt white men. The following year, Lynch co-authored another article in Policy Review, a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, with the title "'You Ain't The Right Color, Pal': White Resentment of Affirmative Action," and in a Commentary piece published the same year, he declared, "One of the sleeper political forces in America is the growing sense of grievance among younger working-class and middle-class white males." Lynch found that many of these men who were the first to be hurt by the recession were not college graduates and worried about declining job opportunities following the economic downturn of the mid-1970s. Moreover, they believed they were losing economic and political ground to people of color and women. According to Lynch, newspaper articles, polling data, and social science research bolstered his argument that white men felt "frustrated and unfairly victimized by affirmative action."

Conservatives lauded Lynch's book. For example, psychologist Joseph Adelson painted Lynch as a hero unafraid to take on such an unpopular and "taboo topic" and described Invisible Victims as "an excellent volume about real rather than potential victims, individuals who have suffered directly because racial preferences have disrupted or ended their careers." According to Adelson, these men were aptly described as "invisible" because "No one calls attention to them, no one speaks on their behalf ... They find few outside their families are much troubled by their misfortune, not even their friends." Significantly, what this reviewer did not point out is that while Lynch's interviews showed that these white men perceived themselves to be victims of discrimination, there was no additional evidence to either support or negate their claims. Instead, Lynch treated their accounts, as did his conservative audience, as if they were material reality.

In 1991, Shelby Steele, another scholar, came to national attention through a series of articles that argued against affirmative action, which were published in a book of essays titled, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. What gave Steele, then an English professor at San Jose State University, a particular notoriety at the time was that he, unlike Lynch, was African American. In a New York Times article that drew from his book, Steele described affirmative action as a "mandate" through which whites can atone for their "past racial sins" and thereby "achieve a new racial innocence." However, in Steele's view, the resolve for this mandate has weakened since the 1980s. Like Lynch, he believed that "[w]hites are now less willing to endure the unfairness to themselves in order to grant special entitlements to blacks even when those entitlements are justified in the name of past suffering." For blacks, on the other hand, Steele argued that racial preferences lower standards "to increase black representation"—which not only reinforces the myth of white superiority/ black inferiority, but also serves to create "stigma" and "doubt" for African Americans. He concluded with an emphasis on individual responsibility:

Blacks can have no real power without taking responsibility for their own educational and economic development. Whites can have no racial innocence without earning it by eradicating discrimination and helping the disadvantaged to develop. Because we ignored the means [affirmative action], the goals had not been reached and the real work remains to be done.

In Steele's view, then, for blacks to become successful in American society, they must embrace the values of individual responsibility and hard work. Conversely, until Anglo Americans do the work of challenging their own racial prejudice, they must give up the dream of "racial innocence" that affirmative action policy proffers by taking individual responsibility to bring about the end of racial prejudice.

Steele's politics of the period were emblematic of what historian Angela Dillard termed "multicultural conservatism." As she argued, in the 1980s neoconservatives began to reject what they saw as the excessive egalitarianism of American culture and opposed programs such as affirmative action and many of the Great Society program's federal initiatives which, in their view, constituted government interventions that undermined the importance of individual achievement, personal responsibility, and hard work. Sociologist Howard Winant described these "new racial politics" as a "neoconservative white racial project." In his view, such a project "seeks to preserve white advantage through denial of racial difference." As noted in the Introduction, other scholars locate the backlash against affirmative action within the broader discourse of neoliberalism. While both discourses assume that individuals make relatively unconstrained "choices," they each contribute to the affirmative action debate in distinctive ways. The notion that white men are disadvantaged by affirmative action, and hence are unable to make unconstrained employment choices, derives from neoliberal assumptions about the "free market," while assumptions that blacks are unworthy of affirmative because they are "unqualified" draws from moral assumptions of neoconservatism.


Excerpted from Racing for Innocence by Jennifer L. Pierce Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Telling Stories About Race in an Era of Colorblindness....................1
1 Innocence and Injury: The Politics of Cultural Memory in Print News Media....................19
2 Filming Racial Progress: The Transformation of White Male Innocence....................42
3 Racing for Innocence: Stories of Disavowal and Exclusion....................64
4 Stand by Your Man: Women Lawyers and Affirmative Action....................84
5 Small Talk: A Short Story....................118
Commentary: Ambivalent Racism....................131
Conclusion: Still Racing for Innocence....................137
Appendix A: Reflections on Methodology....................153
Appendix B: Hollywood Films....................167
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